Saturday, September 09, 2023

a man with back pain speaks - or the poetry of the Ouch


Should a man with back pain read the Philosophical Investigations?

I’m the man with back pain in this question. Last Saturday, due to some untoward twist of my posture, I think – I am not certain of this, I have a vague sense of the cause that is mixed up with a vague and exasperated sense of the unfairness of it all – I suddenly got a pain in my back that quickly spread. Lumbago, a word that, like abracadabra, gives us a spell rather than an exact name for the event, is what we all call it. It is my excuse: I say I have lumbago and I can’t do such and such. Although, unlike many of the excuses I make, “can” here is pretty exact: My pain threshold gets passed pretty quickly if, for instance, I walk more than a block or so.  

Famously, Wittgenstein took up the question of “inner sensations” in what is called the Private Language section of the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein lived in England, and the English tradition of reflection typically took pain examples from the high life – the pain of a toothache in the study, for instance – and not from the lowlife – say, the pain of wearing manacles in a slave ship. In the forties, when Wittgenstein was questioning the idea of pain as an utterly closed off property – an inaccessible inner object – pain was being delivered by the air and on the ground in massive shocks. Like Henry Green, who utilized  his volunteer work with the fire department during the London Blitz to write Caught, Wittgenstein, a hospital volunteer during the same time, must have had plenty of opportunities to see pain in a variety of situations. In Caught the upper middle class character, Richard, the volunteer auxiliary fireman, has a talk with a Czech refugee named Ilse about the bombing. Usually, in talking with English women, he gives a speech about the dangers presented by the fires and gets the response that “you’ll be alright”, but Ilse responds by saying Yes, you do have a high chance of dying and then says of the famous English stiff upper lip/jokey attitude: “I, I like you here, but you have no idea how you are hated abroad, yes, even by your own allies.”

Wittgenstein, I think, shared Ilse’s attitude about the English flatness: the idea that if you avoided the depths, they would go away. Far from being “common sense”, this flatness corrupted common sense, making it an obstacle to feeling.

“Why can't a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest? Could one teach a dog to simulate pain? Perhaps it is possible to teach him to howl on particular occasions as if he were in pain, even when he is not. But the surroundings which are necessary for this behaviour to be real simulation are missing.”

Indeed, I don’t think I am the only one who wonders if my inner dog isn’t simulating pain, limping around: to say I feel pain is not the simple report it seems to be. Back pain is fleeting and then it is not. This week, I have had a lot of encounters with the enemy, but I have not seen through its tricks, or quite understand the hand to hand moments. For me, the morning is a terrible time – then my back feels all of a block, a heavy block, but not a happy one: a crushed in turtle shell. And then I lay down on something called, in French, a tapis champ des fleurs – that is, a towel like thing that has about four dozen “fleur”, bristly plastic circles, that press into your skin, acupuncture like. It works. I can’t lay down naked on it – I need a t shirt or an intervening towel. But long sessions ameliorate the pain, and make me wonder if I wasn’t… well, faking it?

Of the feigning of pain, there is no end. In Patton, the George C. Scott vehicle that gave my seventh grade a patriotic buzz, there is a scene in which Patton slaps a soldier in shell shock. I probably imitated it, as did my friends. You god damned coward! It is, looking back on it, a rather shocking scene. I’m not the first person to say Patton was generally on the Mussolini right. Scott played that role, down to the way Patton angrily breathed through his nose, with a great gusto. And of course Patton was on perma-play in the Nixon White House. The issue of shell shock, though, has always been treated gingerly in American popular culture – it makes bombing people suddenly less fun.

The army put great stock in research devoted to sussing out the malingerer from the truly shell shocked. And in common life, Freud’s patients were neurasthenics who doctors often diagnosed, in fancy terms, as fakers. Fake pain and real pain – the two go arm in arm throughout the fraught history of twentieth century medicine. And especially as that history is gendered: from Chronic Fatigue to Long Covid, the more a condition is identified with women, the more it is likely to be considered “fake”. Even then, however, the pain is not considered “fake”. The pain is like some real physical event – a rock thrown, a brick dropped.

Pain (and not pleasure – sadly, pleasure is not a common object of philosophical reflection) when it is genuine seems no different than other qualia – say, the color red. It requires some sensing apparatus to make its appearance. And in as much as that seems, to some degree, a magic trick, Wittgenstein surrounds pain with questions – as indeed pain is surrounded with questions in a clinic. Do you hurt here? Do you hurt when you do this?

“But isn’t it absurd to say of a body that it has pains? And why would one feel this was absurd? In so far as my hand does not feel pains, but I in my hand?“

And even – as we know from the battlefield – when the hand is gone, there can be phantom pain in that hand. This somehow makes sense: pain may be as real as rocks, but we know that there is an infinitely small but infinitely crowdable margin in which the experience of pain and the expression of pain don’t align. The poetry of the ouch is not dead, but can be as variable as fuck, can be metaphored, signified, lyed and dyed in a million different ways.

This is one of them, wiling away my back getting better.



Thursday, September 07, 2023

cioran's style


Unlike, say, happiness or sadness, despair doesn’t easily select, among a repertoire of performances, those which express its substance – or rather, its tone. The attraction, such as it is, of Cioran’s work is that here, one feels, despair gets free play. Massively, in fact. In his essays, the absence of act that characterises despair, its sunken violence – for despair, as Cioran sees it, is the child of a precedent and excessive violence – becomes the substance of the text, and as such fights a rearguard action with its very motive. If despair cuts us off from motive itself, it seems to remove at the same time its elemental right as a mood. This isn’t a matter of auto-erasure, as it is about the futility of all marks.

Cioran started out as an intellectual as a Romanian fascist: this is the point from which, whether overtly or implicitly, he always start in his subsequent writings. It is the image of that intellectual madness that haunts him. He was cured of this set of beliefs/prejudices – including the nastiest and most sinister, anti-semitism; but the rescue was not logical or discursive, but characterological, and as such, confirmed his notion that the logical and discursive were a kind of foam on the wave – an epiphenomenon, and not a matter of the depths.  The Cioran who praised Hitler as a young man had pulled himself out of that violence when, in 1944, he pled for the life of Benjamin Fondane  

-          Cioran went with Jean Paulhan, who he had contacted,  to the police station where the Gestapo was keeping  Fondane and his sister. He wanted to get them to release Fondane, and thought he’d plead the importance of the man.  The Gestapo offered a nasty little deal: Fondane could leave if he’d leave his siser. In an act that Cioran must have reflected on  often, Fondane refused to abandon his sister.  So they took them both, and both were murdered at Auschwitz.

There’s a famous passage in his History and Utopia which outlines Cioran’s notion of what is, for any real writer since the early modern era, the real thing he was after - the Work in all its dark and frustrating glory. But what a self-divided goal it turns out to be!

“The idle man who loves violence safeguards his savoir-vivre in confining it to an abstract hell. Unhanding the individual, letting go of names and faces, he goes after the imprecise, the general, and, orienting his thirst for exterminations toward the impalpable, imagines a new genre: the pamphlet without an object. “

 In Cioran, every lapidary statement is eventually thrown back in his face. In “Drawn and Quartered” one of his last books, Cioran’s idle man conceives a different genre under which to classify his writing:”One should not chain oneself to a Work, one must instead say the kind of thing that can be murmured in the ear of a drunk or a dying person.” The ephemeral and the absolute must, somehow, be forced to merge. This is the very duty of style.

A wonderful and terrifying artistic credo to work under.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...